Harvest time in Switzerland County: Was there enough rain for the crops?

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First, heavy spring rains kept Switzerland County farmers out of the fields, delaying planting of this year’s crop. Summer brought near-drought conditions, and had farmers worrying about whether or not the plants were getting enough moisture.

Then the beginning of fall saw heavy rains come to the area, again keeping farmers out of their fields while they worried about areas of their fields flooding,

Now it’s harvest time in the county, and again local county farmers are under the gun. Did the dry summer hurt as much as feared? Did the early and late rains help or hurt the plants?

Will it stop raining long enough to dry up and get this year’s crop harvested? Could an early November snow be the crippling blow that no farmer wants to see?

Chuck Deputy of the Switzerland County office of the Farm Service Agency says that overall, this year’s agriculture crops in the county are looking pretty good. He tempers that remark by noting that harvest is just getting into full swing, but early reports from farmers show that the summer drought did not hurt crops as badly as feared.

“Where farmers got hurt was the early corn,” Chuck Deputy said. “Especially in the rolling fields with more of a clay soil. Some farmers are reporting that they only got about 60 bushels per acre yield on those, and that’s not good.”

Chuck Deputy said that the flat fields in the county weren’t hit as bad, and most of those are showing yields of 150-160 bushels per acre on corn — the normal county average.

He estimates that county corn is approximately 65-70 percent harvested at this point; while soybeans are 70-75 percent harvested. Nearly all of the tobacco is out of the field and in the barns now.

“Really, I don’t think the tobacco crop was hurt at all by the summer weather,” Chuck Deputy said. “Tobacco can take the dry weather better than other crops, so it should be okay. Right now I’m not hearing any tobacco yields because no one’s got their crop stripped, but I think it will be alright.”

Although the overall county crop appears to be fine, Chuck Deputy says that the worst thing that farmers are fearing right now are the prices that crops will bring at market.

“Right now it’s the prices more than the yields,” Chuck Deputy said.

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Mike Donnellon farms all around the area, and he says that this year’s growing season has been “interesting, to say the least.”

He says that area farmers have experienced every obstacle known to man, getting rain when they didn’t need it; and not getting rain when they did need it.

“We had everything under the sun,” Mike Donnellon said.

He says that corn yields are varying dramatically around the area, and most of that is due to the spotty rain that marked the entire summer. All through the summer months some areas in Switzerland County would get a rain shower; while a farm just down the road would see no rain at all.

“You could stand in a field and see a wall of rain coming,” Mike Donnellon said. “Then you could see it just stop, and then it would go around you. It was really strange.”

Mike Donnellon said that those pop up showers will show differences in yields in fields sitting right next to each other — and in some cases one end of the same field will have a higher yield than the other end.

Soybean yields are the same way.

When the harvest is completed, what are county farmers looking at?

“Probably when everything’s said and done, it’s going to be a tough year for Switzerland County farmers,” Mike Donnellon said. “We’re definitely below our averages. Right now we’re all right in the middle of harvest, so we’ll have to wait and see what’s going to come from this.”

Most farmers that Mike Donnellon has spoken to still have some corn out, but he said that the uncertain weather also played a factor in which crops were harvested first.

For farmers who saw little or no rain on their corn, the weakened stalks began to wilt, causing the ears of corn to fall — and making it more difficult to harvest.

“If you didn’t have as much rain, you had to get your corn in first,” Mike Donnellon said. “If your corn was down some, another heavy rain might put it all the way to the ground, and we couldn’t have that, so we had to get it in first.”

For other farmers, adequate rain meant that the corn is still standing, so they opted to harvest soybeans first.

“This is an odd year because there’s not a lot of consistency from farm to farm,” Mike Donnellon said. “Each farmer had to do what was best for his individual farm. Yields are all over the place. My corn is done, and I’m about half done with beans. We’ll just have to see.”

Mike Donnellon said that another problem facing Switzerland County farmers is that there are still many crops out in the fields. The recent rains are making it impossible to get machinery into the fields to harvest; and as October comes to an end, the fear of winter weather raises its head.

“If we would get an early November snowstorm, things could get really bad,” Mike Donnellon said. “There are so many crops still out because of the recent rains. Some of those are still going to be out when November comes next week, and a wet, heavy early snow could mean that a farmer loses 30-40 percent of the crop that is still out.”

Another critical element is machinery. The weather has compressed the harvest season, so a farmer who suffers some machinery breakdown may find himself in severe trouble.

“A breakdown at the wrong time could be very bad because you don’t have the time to wait on the repairs,” Mike Donnellon said.

Overall, Mike Donnellon said that when everything is finished, he is confident that the experience and the resiliency of the Switzerland County farmer will win out.

“We’ve been through tough times before,” he said. “We’re used to it. It comes with the profession.”

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While some farmers struggle to harvest their corn and soybeans, Switzerland County farmers who are still involved in tobacco are facing their own set of problems.

Johnny Andrew, one of the county’s most respected burley growers, said that tobacco farmers here have faced those same weather problems, and with stripping about to get underway, farmers are about to find out just how much their crop was affected.

“I haven’t started stripping any tobacco yet, but we’re getting ready to,” Johnny Andrew said. “I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but I’m thinking it’s going to be an average crop, at best.”

Johnny Andrew said that the lack of rain during the summer hurt burley growers, and that was followed by more rain than farmers needed at the end of August and early September.

“The crop looks fair, I’m not real fond of this crop,” Johnny Andrew said. “But it may be alright, but I’m thinking that it could be better. I guess we always hope that it’s better than it is.”

Johnny Andrew said that some Switzerland County farmers are already in the stripping room — but not too many. He said that by this time last year he already had 20,000-25,000 pounds of his crop stripped; but has not yet started in 2005.

“We were late getting it out of the field because of the weather, “ Johnny Andrew said. “Help was another factor. We didn’t have enough help when we really needed it, so that slowed us down, too.”

This tobacco growing season also marks the first year under the new tobacco program — or lack thereof. Gone are the old tobacco quotas and tobacco bases that farmers operated under; and that means an entire new way of doing business for local farmers such as Johnny Andrew.

“We’ll get about 40 to 50 cents less than before when we were under the old program,” Johnny Andrew said. “That’s because we’re under the buyout program. The new program allows us to raise tobacco wherever we want to, so we won’t have to pay rent on other farms, so I’m thinking it will come out about the same money as before.”

Under the old program, a farmer could grow as much tobacco as he wanted, but each individual farm was assigned a “base” amount, and you couldn’t grow any more than the base amount on that farm.

For larger tobacco farmers, that meant renting farms that had tobacco base assigned to them and growing the crop there. That rent came out of the grower’s profits.

With the new program, farmers like Johnny Andrew can grow their entire crop on a single farm, cutting out those rent expenses.

Also all but gone are the old tobacco warehouses where farmers used to take their crop for auction. Farmers now sell directly to tobacco companies, eliminating the warehouses and auctions all together.

Johnny Andrew has a contract with Phillip Morris USA for 65,000 pounds of burley. When Phillip Morris opens its processing center and begins accepting tobacco in mid November, some of Johnny Andrew’s crop will be ready, but most will filter in throughout the processing season.

“I think we’re in real good shape in terms of making our contract pounds,” Johnny Andrew said. “I think everything’s going to work out okay. We just need to get it stripped and see what we have.”